Wisconsin school and police investigating photo of students appearing to pose in Nazi salute

The photo drew backlash on social media and got attention from local police.

A Wisconsin school district and local police are investigating a photo of a group of mostly white high school boys giving what appears to be the Nazi salute after it drew strong backlash on social media.

The image of students in the Baraboo School District was posted on the @GoBaraboo parody account on Sunday.

The tweet has since been taken down, but police and school officials promised to investigate. The photo in question is from last spring, according to District Superintendent Lori Mueller.

"The school district is investigating this situation and is working with parents, staff and local authorities," Mueller said in a statement to students and parents. "If the gesture is what it appears to be, the district will pursue any and all available and appropriate actions, including legal, to address the issue."

In a separate tweet posted on Monday, Mueller wrote, "The photo posted under the hashtag is "not reflective of the educational values and beliefs of the School District of Baraboo."

Baraboo police also tweeted that they are assisting the district's investigation since being made aware of a "controversial photo of a group of high school students."

On Wednesday, Mueller sent a letter to parents and community members as a follow-up to the school district's previous statements.

"There is little we can say about the details of the investigation at this time, but we will keep you updated as we are able to share more," according to the letter.

"Regardless of the details of the photo or the intentions in the hearts of those involved, the truth is this is an image that has rightly been described as hateful, frightening and disappointing. We are so very sorry that the actions of some of our students so understandably and deeply hurt people around the world."

The letter explained that the school district has heard from people around the world and that the school officials are in the planning stages with civic, community and faith leaders to host a community program.

"As a school district community, we are focused on ensuring everyone in our district, everyone in our community and others have an opportunity to come together to listen, learn and heal," the letter said.

The photo drew widespread disapproval, including from Wisconsin Gov.-elect Tony Evers and the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Poland.

"This is why every single day we work hard to educate. We need to explain what is the danger of hateful ideology rising. Auschwitz with its gas chambers was at the very end of the long process of normalizing and accommodating hatred," the Auschwitz Memorial tweeted.

More than 7,000 people have signed an online petition calling on the school to the suspend students seen participating in the gesture.

“Please join me in asking their high school to suspend the boys for using hateful hand symbols at a public school event,” read the petition organized by the Care2 website, an organization meant to address social issues.

Not all the students in the photo participated in the gesture. Jordan Blue, a student in the top right of the photo whose arms remain at his sides, said in a statement that the photo was taken as students gathered at the Sauk County Courthouse for professional prom photos and that he "couldn't leave the photo as it was taken within five seconds."

“The photographer told us to raise our hands kind of in a way, and I knew at that point that some my classmates are very immature," he said in a separate interview. "So didn’t want to do that, and I saw what was happening and I felt so upset.”

Pete Gust, who operates Wheel Memories and has a son in the photo, refuted this on Tuesday in an interview with the Associated Press, saying he was asking the teens to wave goodbye to their parents before they headed off to the dance and never anticipated the image would draw such a visceral reaction. Gust said that the timing sequence of the shot he took of about 60 boys outside the local courthouse showed the students' arms extended in different stages as they raised them.

"There was nothing intended in any way shape or form to simulate anything that was offensive to anyone," Gust told the AP. "If there's any error, it was me in timing the shot."

Jonathan Schieber, a senior who appears in the photo, told ABC News there was no discussion of any racist aspect to the photo when it was taken. It was only after the photo garnered social media attention over the weekend that he started to hear about it. Schieber, who is black, was singled out due to his race, though he had both arms at his side in the photo.

"Somebody had made a meme or something, saying, 'We even got the black kid to throw it up,'" Schieber told ABC News. "I couldn't go nowhere without people being like, 'Are you that kid from the picture? Everybody was sharing it, talking about racial profiling. I went to school on Monday and people were trying to take pictures with me -- you're going viral, all that stuff.

"I left school because I was not having it," he added.

Wheel Memories posted thumbnails of several photos from the shoot on its website in the spring, including the one in question. The photos have since been removed and the agency wrote on its site in a message that it blames "jerks" and online negativity.

"It is too bad that there are those in society who can and do take the time to be jerks; knowingly and willingly to be jerks! The internet can be a wonderful tool but for some there is an overwhelming urge to destroy. The destruction may not be physical but instead it can be bullying that is intellectual or emotional," the photo agency wrote on its website.

"To anyone that was hurt I sincerely apologize. To those who have harmed them, we as society often ignore them I have chosen not to do that. YOU ARE JERKS! Grow up! Be kind, Be gentle, Be civil!"

ABC News has reached out to several other students in the photo who were identified through social media.

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